All aboard the GLX

I didn’t have to come to Northeastern today, but I was excited to try the Green Line Extension, which made its grand debut on Monday. So here I am.

My ride began at the new Medford/Tufts station at Boston and College avenues. It’s a mile and a half from my house and it was c-o-l-d, so my wife dropped me off on her way to work. There are a couple of buses I could have taken, too, although they don’t run as often as they should.

I walked inside the shiny new station, downstairs to the platform and then onto a train. There was no place to pay either before or after boarding, so the handful of us who were riding from Medford got a free pass. I don’t know about the other five new stations, but obviously that’s not a viable business plan; I assume payment options will be coming soon. We sat there for a few minutes in the cold, with the doors open, and then pulled out at 7:27 a.m.

The ride was smooth and a lot zippier than I’m used to on the Green Line. We had a beautiful sunrise view of the Zakim Bridge as we crossed the channel before heading underground. Things began to bog down south of Science Park. The train finally got crowded at North Station, so I put on my mask. And then it was the usual slow roll the rest of the way.

We pulled in to Northeastern at 8:06. Thirty-nine minutes wasn’t bad at all, but it was closer to an hour when you add in getting to the station and then waiting for the train to start moving. I’ll probably stick with my usual commute — I’m a seven-minute walk from the West Medford commuter rail station, which gets me to North Station in 12 minutes. After that, I can take the Orange Line or the Green Line to campus depending on my mood and which comes first.

On the other hand, I’m teaching an evening class this fall, and the commuter rail rarely runs after rush hour. The Green Line may be an attractive alternative to paying for a Lyft.

Finally, a semi-unrelated observation: I couldn’t make out where the Somerville Community Path was, which struck me as odd. On rare occasions, I like to ride my bike to work, and this ought to be a better option than what’s available to me now. The path has been built out to Lechmere and runs along the tracks. I had hoped the path would be extended north to the Medford/Tufts station, but I don’t think that’s the case. From what I can tell, you’ll pick it up at Lowell Street in Somerville.

The Green Line Extension to Medford is looking good

I got a look at the almost-ready Medford/Tufts MBTA station on the Green Line Extension during a walk through Medford, Somerville and Arlington on Saturday. After many delays, the station is scheduled to open Dec. 12. Trolleys that originate there will be part of the E Line, which I’m pretty excited about because it will run directly to Northeastern without my having to change trolleys.

It’s a mile and a half from our house, which is kind of a schlep when you’re trying to get to work. But it’s not a bad bike ride when it’s nice out and not dark, and there may be times when I can get a ride from my wife or daughter. Also of note: A bike path runs alongside the tracks into the city, which may make for a better ride to campus, something I like to do occasionally.

Now if only they’d extend it to northwest to Route 16. That was the original plan, but it fell victim to cost-cutting. Maybe someday.

Amid COVID-19 and a failing MBTA, more and more people turn to biking

The rise of Bluebikes has helped fuel an increase in the number of people traveling on two wheels in the Boston area. Photo by Henry Shifrin.

My wonderful Northeastern intermediate reporting students have produced a terrific story on urban biking for The Scope, our School of Journalism’s digital publication covering issues related to social justice.

Here’s how we did it. Eleven of the 14 students interviewed experts, policymakers and ordinary cyclists, combining all of their notes onto one Google Doc. One student took photos. Two contributed research. Each of them wrote a story based on everyone’s notes. Finally, I pulled together an article from several of their stories.

I am pleased with the results and incredibly proud of my students. You can read their story right here.

The Globe’s report from Buenos Aires shows why we need a better bus system

We need more of these. Photo (cc) 2008 by the Mass. Office of Tourism.

The Boston Globe’s coverage of our public transportation crisis, already indispensable, rises to another level today with a report from Buenos Aires. Reporter Taylor Dolven finds that a  system nearly as old as Greater Boston’s is far more reliable than ours, despite Argentina’s daunting economic problems. The reason: They take safety and maintenance seriously. The story as a whole is a revelation, but this jumped out:

The trains may run on time in Buenos Aires, but most public transit riders take the bus.

Buses on 92 routes that were stuck in car traffic a decade ago now cruise past the gridlock in bus-only lanes on eight main avenues, stretching some 38 miles in total. Bus stops on these corridors, called Metrobus, have roofs, lighting, seating, and sometimes countdown clocks, and the bus lanes are separated from car traffic with barriers.

The bus trip between two popular train terminals in the city used to take as long as an hour. Now it takes 30 minutes tops.

The MBTA could do much more with buses, by far the cheapest option for moving large numbers of people. Unlike rail, you don’t have to install tracks. Unlike rail, you can modify and add routes in response to changes in where people live and work. The key is to set aside bus-only lanes in many more places so that they can zip through as efficiently as subways and trolley cars. We’ve only begun to do that.

Yes, of course we need commuter rail, subways and trolleys. More than anything, though, we need to stop treating buses as an afterthought.

Baker’s had seven years to fix the T. It’s worse than ever.

Photo (cc) 2022 by Dan Kennedy

A Twitter thread on the decline and fall of the MBTA under Gov. Charlie Baker:

More than seven years ago, after Snowmaggedon brought the #MBTA to its knees, Gov. Baker was given unprecedented authority to fix it. We now know he didn’t use that opportunity wisely or well. (1/x)

If there was an assessment made of what work needed to be done, it was obviously inadequate. We’ve seen one issue after another come up during the past year, and especially the past few months. (2/x)

With proper planning, much of the work could have been done during the pandemic shutdown. Instead, we’re now dealing with Orange and Green Line closures just as employers are trying to entice their workers into returning to the office. (3/x)

It’s not all Baker’s fault. The last governor to take issues involving the T seriously was Michael Dukakis. There’s no political gain in fixing the T because the benefits are invisible. (4/x)

Baker does deserve credit for saving the GLX after Deval Patrick nearly gold-plated it into oblivion. Overall, though, Baker failed, and his term is ending with the T in a state of collapse. (5/x)

Notably silent: Maura Healey, who’s as sure a bet to be elected governor as you get in politics. This is not a time for caution. What is her vision for the T? If she remains silent, then she won’t have a mandate to carry it out. (6/x)

Like many, I depend on the MBTA to get to work and elsewhere. I use commuter rail, subways and buses. I really have no good alternatives, so I’m being patient. What choice do I have? But all of this is incredibly dispiriting. (7/7)

AOK for the GLX

I see that train a-comin’ … the Green Line Extension so far, looking down from the end of the Somerville Community Path. Word is that the trolley will be running by this fall.

The MBTA is driving people away — which means they will drive when this is over

How to destroy the MBTA bit by bit: The last “rush hour” (remember that?) train leaving North Station on the Lowell line is at 6 p.m. The next one is at 8. There used to be several in between.

Although I’ve thought about not taking the train in the morning until I’m vaccinated, the fact is that both the commuter rail and the subway are nearly empty, and everyone is good about wearing a mask. So I take it. But then my wife has to pick me up after work.

Boston Globe columnist Yvonne Abraham explains what the T’s policy of not spending the federal aid it’s receiving is doing to public transportation in Greater Boston. If you don’t maintain the system now, it won’t be there when we need it.

COVID Diary #9: Commuting in the age of pandemic

A cyclist heads north on Mass Ave just north of Harvard Square.

Previously published at WGBHNews.org.

A little after 11 a.m. this past Saturday, I eased myself onto my bike and headed toward Boston. My destination was Northeastern University, where I teach in the journalism program. I wanted to see if it was realistic to commute by bicycle once in-person classes resume this September.

What prompted this experiment was a story in The Boston Globe. According to Steve Annear, even as ridership begins to recover from the pandemic, more passengers are refusing to wear masks — and the MBTA is taking a decidedly laid-back approach to enforcement.

“What I’ve been doing as a rider whenever I see people not wearing a mask is I’ve been getting off in between stations and running to the next car, hoping the people on the new car will all be wearing their masks,” a rider named Victoria Kroeger told Annear.

Terrific.

For more than 20 years, I’d commuted to Boston from the North Shore by car, a soul-sucking ordeal that grew worse every year. Then, in 2014, we moved to West Medford, returning to a neighborhood where we’d lived for a few years in the early 1980s. I discovered the joy of walking to the train station and then hopping onto the subway at North Station. Commuting became almost a pleasure. We all love to complain about the T, but it rarely let me down.

That doesn’t mean, though, that I want to get onto sealed trains and subway cars with hundreds of strangers, any one (or dozen) of whom could be carrying the coronavirus that causes COVID-19. Especially if maskless morons are spewing aerosolized particles of disease into the air.

Which is why I was on my bike Saturday, maneuvering on side paths and urban streets. From the Alewife Greenway I picked up Mass. Ave, then headed toward Harvard Square. From there I followed the Charles River to Boston and back to Mass Ave. I turned right onto St. Stephen Street at Symphony Hall and from there pedaled to my office, which I couldn’t actually get into because of pandemic restrictions.

I’d covered 8.9 miles in 53 minutes, a little faster than it would take by public transportation. I was no worse for the wear; but it was a hot day, and I was sweating freely. If this had been an actual commute, I’d want to take a shower — but the locker rooms at the campus recreation center are closed for the foreseeable future because of the pandemic. (And I wouldn’t take the risk, anyway.)

I’d proved that I could do it, but I hadn’t convinced myself that I would do it. After shattering my elbow in an encounter with a wet speed bump 10 years ago, I didn’t ride a bike again until last year. So I’m ever wary about the hazards of urban biking. I’m also not going to ride in the rain or in the dark. For me, biking to work is a maybe option under perfect conditions, but hardly a comprehensive solution.

So what am I — what are all of us — supposed to do?

A couple of years ago, we decided to become a one-car family. My wife takes it for her short drive to work, and she has no other options. I’ve thought about trying to lease a car until V (Vaccine) Day. But I’ve heard from many of my colleagues that they’re also thinking of driving because of concerns about the T, so it seems more than likely that parking will be a nightmare. I’ve thought of relying on Lyft, but I’m not convinced that would be a COVID-free experience, either.

The message on the MBTA website is simple and direct: “All riders and employees are required to wear face coverings while riding the T.” But will the T start doing a better job of enforcing it? What about social-distancing? What about air quality? What happens when a subway car stops, the electricity goes off and air circulation is cut off?

These are things we all ought to be concerned about, especially when thousands of college students from all over the country — most definitely including states that are surging now — arrive in Boston a few weeks from now.

It had been a couple of months since I’d been on campus, so I spent a little time looking around. I was surprised by how many students were sunning themselves on Centennial Common — not huge numbers, but enough to make the campus feel at least semi-populated. Then I headed home, this time skipping the river route and taking Mass. Ave from Hemenway Street into North Cambridge, shaving a half-mile off my trip.

It was fun. But I couldn’t help but notice how light traffic was compared to what it will be like on weekdays after Labor Day. Maybe some hardier, younger folks than I could make the transition to commuting by bike. But I’m almost certainly going to have to depend on the T, and I’m not going to be alone.

Multiply my story, and my concerns, by tens — if not hundreds — of thousands, and you’ve got an idea of what challenges the region is going to face this fall. According to the T, there were 1.16 million trips taken in February, the last month before the pandemic hit. Safe public transportation is indispensable to our economy and to the well-being of our community.

We can’t let the T become a vector for a new COVID surge. We have to get this right.

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Why Washington’s Metro may be even worse than the T

Washington's Metro: Beautiful stations, big problems. Photo (cc) by Mustafa Khayat.
Washington’s Metro: Beautiful stations, big problems. Photo (cc) by Mustafa Khayat.

Previously published at WGBHNews.org.

Not long ago I had to navigate the sort of public-transportation meltdown that is familiar to any Bostonian. The subway wasn’t running, and I had some important meetings to get to. I took a Lyft into the city. After my meetings, still no subway—so I took advantage of the nice weather and walked.

Ah, the MBTA. Except this wasn’t the T. Instead, it was Metro, the fast, clean, and—until recently—reliable rail system that serves Washington, DC, and its environs.

Those of us who rely on the T have long considered Metro to be the very model of what a modern subway system is supposed to look like. It may be 40 years old, but compared to Boston’s 1890s-vintage patchwork of subway lines and streetcars, it’s brand spanking new.

Now, though, both systems are suffering from what happens after many years of chronic disinvestment. Believe it or not, the problems facing Metro may be more acute. The infrastructure needs of both systems are huge, yet the political will to meet those needs is lacking. And if two cities like Boston and Washington—a regional hub and the nation’s hub—are behind the eight ball, what hope is there for the Buffalos and the Worcesters, the Detroits and the New Bedfords?

Metro’s most recent woes began on March 14, when an electrical fire broke out near the McPherson Square station. Because of similarities to a fire last year in which one person died and 84 were hospitalized because of smoke inhalation, the folks in charge decided to shut down the entire system all day on March 16 in order to conduct extensive safety inspections. Metro’s many woes—which include a crash that claimed nine lives in 2009—made it to the front page of the New York Times this week.

As it turned out, that was the first of two days for which I had scheduled interviews in downtown Washington. To my relief, the roads were not gridlocked, and Lyft didn’t take advantage of the crisis by jacking up prices. My three-mile walk from K Street through Georgetown, over the Francis Scott Key Bridge, and back to my hotel in Rosslyn was pleasant—it was a warm late-winter day, and the cherry blossoms were out.

Metro reopened the next day. But get this: The system’s leadership is now considering shutting down entire lines for six months at a time in order to carry out long-overdue repairs. A Post editorial thundered:

Do they want to scare commuters into expecting the worst so they won’t complain when the shutdown is only three months? Are they trying to rattle the federal and local governments into ponying up more money? Or are they really so cavalier about disrupting the lives of tens of thousands of Washington-area residents?

By comparison, our own MBTA looks like the gold standard. Sure, we put up with delays, cancellations, fires, and Orange Line passengers being forced to climb out windows. But I can’t remember a time when the entire system was shut down for a day except for extreme weather. And the idea of closing a line for six months is just too awful to contemplate.

And yet. Gabrielle Gurley, who knows both the Boston and Washington systems well (she was an editor at CommonWealth Magazine in Boston and is now an editor at The American Prospect in DC), insists the MBTA is actually in worse shape than Metro, and that it’s only a matter of luck that we’ve been spared the worst. Noting that the MBTA’s maintenance backlog is about $7 billion, Gurley writes:

For all that Washingtonians grumble about their 40-year-old Metro, it remains an engineering marvel (albeit a sputtering one) and a tourist attraction in its own right. Boston’s subway system, the country’s oldest, opened in 1897. It barely gets commuters around the region on sunny days.

David Alpert, who blogs at a site called Greater Greater Washington, wrote recently: “Metro has twin challenges of disinvestment and mismanagement, and both feed on one another. The agency’s failures make people understandably more reluctant to throw money at what seems like a black hole, but underfunding and unusually high expenses have put the system on a knife’s edge where a small mistake has big consequences.”

That certainly sounds familiar, doesn’t it? Here in Greater (Greater?) Boston, Governor Charlie Baker deserves credit for making at least some strides toward reforming the MBTA’s broken culture by establishing a Fiscal Management and Control Board to oversee the system.

But the T needs a massive infusion of funds in addition to management controls. And as former state transportation secretary Jim Aloisi wrote for WGBH News, the 9.3 percent fare increase recently approved by the T not only squeezes money out of the wrong people but isn’t even remotely adequate.

Safe, reliable public transportation is good for the economy and good for the environment. Yet in both Boston and Washington, government seems unwilling to do what it takes to get it right.

Why flat rates make sense for public transportation

Photo (cc) by matthrono.
Photo (cc) by matthrono.

Transportation officials are considering a new high-tech MBTA fare system that could, among other things, be used to charge you more if you are traveling a longer distance. Such a system is already in effect on the commuter rail lines, but not on the subway or buses.

Superficially, such a system makes sense. On the other hand, the farther you travel via public transportation, the more you are benefiting the rest of us in terms of relieving road congestion and reducing air pollution.

Back when I lived in Danvers, I would occasionally take public transportation. Occasionally, that is, because it was too expensive to do it every day. Parking at the Beverly train station cost $5. A round-trip train ticket was $15. And the subway to and from Northeastern was another $5 or so. That’s $25 a day—an enormous expense, especially if you commute every day.

By contrast, I can now walk to the West Medford train station and pay $4.20 for a round-trip ticket. With subway fare, it comes to less than $10. Yet the social and environmental benefit of taking public transportation from West Medford is considerably less than it is compared to the North Shore.

In a perfect world, you’d pay a flat rate for all forms of public transportation. I realize we don’t live in a perfect world, but the benefits of a flat rate are something I hope T officials at least think about.

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